Planning a solo skiing adventure? Japan's new ski city is the answer
You don’t need an entourage to go skiing. Jenny Hewett takes a solo trip to Japan’s new “Ski City”, where culture, powder and scenery mix perfectly to offer a life-changing experience.
- November 2019
I am staring down the razor's edge of a ski slope in Japan's wintry Hokkaido, my heart thumping in my chest. The tips of my skis are peeking over the sheer drop of a shortcut I'm instantly regretting. The angle of the slope appears to be getting more acute by the second. “I can't do it,” I tell myself. I turn around for moral support, for someone to shadow, or for the expletives to flow. My ears await that half-excited-half-terrified chuckle my sister makes when she knows we're in too deep. But there’s no one beside me. Just the great white abyss.
Suddenly I launch myself and my body tenses as I cut back and forth like a knife across the powder towards the chairlifts below, a smile forming on my face. Forget the hype about dancing like no one is watching. True freedom is to ski alone.
Ski culture has always been built on camaraderie. Hitting the slopes, enjoying the après wind-down; sharing stories and creating lifelong memories together are integral to the experience. Due to schedules that could never manage to align, I’ve decided to ski solo for the first time in my life. Up until this point, all of my ski adventures have been in the company of family. So when I first spot the snow of Hokkaido from the plane window, reflexively I make excited 'wow' faces at the passengers sitting next to me instead.
Though it's only 9am, the runway at Sapporo airport in Japan's Hokkaido prefecture has been tucked to bed under a thick blanket of down. My heart warms as I catch the ground crew bowing in unison as our carrier approaches. With my winter gear and solo traveller grit, I’m heading to the city of Asahikawa and its dry powder playgrounds of Kamui Links, Asahidake, Furano and Tomamu, located 138km north of Sapporo, and among Japan's most underrated and uncrowded ski destinations.
I soon discover that Asahikawa sits at the confluence of four rivers in Fargo-like snow-covered farmland and is a charming, multi-dimensional destination with a lot of soul. Sewn with glowing Japanese lanterns, its rustic, time-warped back alleys, carpeted in snow and hidden in the veins of the city, are lined with 100-year-old hole-in-the-wall ramen shops and traditional izakayas (drinking houses). The surrounding ski fields and resorts range from 45 minutes out of town to a two and a half hour drive from the city centre. White, fluffy snow is piled high on streets, it cakes like icing on barns and turns homes into gingerbread houses.
“Locals travel here because it reminds them of Japan in the 80s,” says Itoh who stands neatly in a black suit at the front desk of my hotel lobby. Hoshino Resort's modern, millennial-geared stay OMO7 Asahikawa opened last year in an effort to tap into the town's potential as a 'Ski City'. With its free, 45-minute shuttle bus to Kamui Links each morning and compact, ingeniously-designed rooms from just AUD $80 a night, Japan's famed powder is now accessible to travellers with more modest budgets and solo travellers who don't have the buffer of an extra body. This Asahikawa pocket of Hokkaido, home to more than 350,000 people, is nowhere near as popular as the Aussie-inundated Niseko, and that's the beauty of it.
As the chairlift first plucks me from the base of the mountain, I can't help but feel at ease, despite being alone in a new country. I'm not the only one who has come to embrace solo travel. Google trends reports that search for “female solo travel” grew by 52 per cent between 2016 and 2017, which is not surprising considering solo travel is no longer considered risky for women, but rather empowering (and a chance to get away and not have to please anyone else but yourself).
According to a report by booking portal Skyscanner, two fifths (39 percent) of Australians chose to travel independently last year, though ski spots rarely make the top destination lists for solo travellers. It feels like the last frontier of solo travel, and after five days in Hokkaido, I’m not sure why.
Without social distractions, I'm able to really take in the spellbinding scenery and reflect. When you ski alone, there's no pressure to perform or flaunt your skills, so I opt for an easier run this time, one that I can enjoy like a fine wine. If you do wish to improve your technique, however, solo travellers can hire a guide or get lessons. That's the beauty of skiing solo, there's always the option of company, if you wish. I decide to dabble in both. My ski guide, Akiko, founder of Epic Japan, turns out to be the little push I need to challenge myself. I follow her off-piste, into the expert powder area, where the snow is so deep it skims my thighs. “Don't turn, just bounce,” she encourages before I go headfirst into yet another fluffy dump of snow.
Over the span of a few short days, Akiko has become like a sister. In her late 40s, the whippet-quick, former alpine racer and ski tourer is an experienced solo traveller in her own right and spends her off-seasons climbing Yosemite in the US. “I like the thrill,” she says, “and I don't like places where there are many people”. Lucky then that today Kamui Links is practically deserted. With its 25 intermediate and advanced runs, tree-lined avenues and lengthy, leisurely slopes, this local spot is paradise for solitude-loving skiiers. Day lift passes cost just AUD $41, a fraction of the price of some of Hokkaido's better-known resorts.
Muscles I forgot I had are now beginning to ache, so I suggest something I know I'd be good at. “We don't really have an apres-ski culture here,” laughs Akiko. But it is Japan, after all, and vending machines dispensing cold beer lie around most corners, including the cafe at the bottom of Kamui Links, where I bump into a fellow skiier in search of beverages. He's travelling with a group from San Diego. “Have fun,” he farewells me, grabbing his tinny, “It's hard not to, isn't it?” he calls out. “You know,” says Akiko with a grin as we sip on Sapporo Classic out of frosted cans, “I think apres-ski in Japan is onsen.”
A winter storm has descended, Narnia-like, over the Tokachidake Onsen as we arrive in the mountains in a white-out late one morning. An hour's drive from Asahikawa, this secret hideaway is the closest public bath to the city and tucked deep in the foothills of the Tokachi volcano. It's a bucket-list experience, with indoor and outdoor hot springs overlooking the snowy mountainscape. Tatami-floored ryokan (inn) Hotel Kamirohoso offers overnight packages for visitors from AUD $100, which includes a return shuttle bus from Asahikawa station, use of the onsen, meals and an overnight stay.
Submerged in the volcanic spring, hair frosted with icicles, I want to pinch myself. The ease of independent travel in Japan and the country's nurturing scenery, food and generous people make this one of the best things I have ever done for myself. My soul has expanded. Parts of me are much lighter than when I arrived. I've enjoyed my own banter, dined alone, tested my physical limits and learned more about myself in a week than I could have in a whole year. They say that you should never cut corners in life, but that's one snowy shortcut I'd make over and over again.